Social media and The Truth (The Guardian)

Yes this is a bit about Europe too. But it’s to flag up an important Long Read article from The Guardian which looks wider, and perhaps begins to explain why we have arrived at Brexit without a clear idea what it will look like.

Katharine Viner, the Guardian’s editor, starts with a story that has nothing to do with the referendum, and outlines how a story supported by no actual evidence, that was carefully published by a mainstream newspaper as an “allegation”, ended up being trended on social media and probably believed by many people even now.

She then moves on to look at the pro-Leave claims and the way they were speedily dumped after the result (no, not £350m; no, we probably can’t reduce immigration – the two claims that probably won most votes). I’ve seen these on Facebook myself, persistently re-trailed even when challenged. Clever, inspirational campaigning trumped [sic?] a continual appeal to facts and evidence.

Facebook, Viner says, is now the dominant news source for many people. Well, I remember being really pleased when my sons were taught history at school: they were taiught to look at different sources, assess the reporting and the agendas as well as what was said, and come to a conclusion. I was trained to teach similarly myself as an Open University tutor. So maybe there’s hope; but read the Guardian article for yourself.

• How technology disrupted the truth, Katharine Viner, The Guardian, 12 Jul 2016

The human face of Facebook hoaxing

It’s accepted that scams happen on Facebook. Take notice, for example, of Facebook’s own recent warning about tear-jerking fraudulent stories about terminally ill children. If you say Amen to one of these, and share it, you may be helping a real child rack up their ten thousand Likes; but you may not. You may, perhaps more likely, be helping fraudsters to build up lists which can then be used to post further scams, or misrepresent the popularity of their product. Images are usually stolen from elsewhere on the web, to add to the misrepresentation. No, they don’t enable people to take over your Facebook account itself. But it is better not to respond. See the Hoax-slayer article, indexed below, for a route into more accurate information.

But there’s a new slant on this problem in a “long read” article in The Guardian last week. This profiles a US hoax investigator, Taryn Wright, who initially looked into one particular hoax in depth. What caught her attention was simply the number of problems attributed to the same family – childhood cancer, fatal car accidents, murders. There was no tie-up with reporting in any other media, despite the human interest aspect to the tragedies which would (in this country) be a natural for the tabloids or at least local press.

She found she could identify the original sources of many of the pictures used on the posts. With the help of contacts through a blog, she could follow through IP addresses to identify the source of the stories. And this is where this story diverges from what you might expect.

She didn’t find financial scams or promotional hoaxes. She found a real person with genuine social problems, who’d created the ficititious family and all its problems, over more than a decade, to gather the community of friends, contacts and support that her real life had denied her. And Taryn Wright created a real, supportive friendship from the contact; a pattern she has repeated in other cases too.

But also: among the investigative group that spontaneously gathered, many were more inclined to a vigilante-style approach than to compassionate response. Taryn Wright had to close down most of her group, working with only a handful who share her approach. And of course there has been internet abuse and some physical threats too.

It’s a story well worth reading. Form your own opinion!

• Facebook Posts Asking You to Type ‘Amen’ To Help Children or Animals Are Like-Farming Scams Not Hackers, Hoax-Slayer, 24 Nov 2015 (or search Google for “Don’t say Amen on facebook“)
• Cancer cons, phoney accidents and fake deaths: meet the internet hoax buster, Rachel Monroe, The Guardian, 18 Feb 2016

Crowdfunding again: a personal request

Readers will remember I’ve blogged in the past about crowdfunding with the headline “Not just for geeks”. I’ve contributed myself to a couple of things: a board game based on the history of Oxford, and an early music opera (La Liberazione de Ruggiero …) which was triumphantly presented recently at this year’s Brighton Early Music Festival to stunning reviews.

Now a new one, and this time I’m asking for your help. Since I did my own university research, decades ago now, the funding system has changed out of recognition and it can be near impossible to find a scholarship or a fellowship or simply money to fund the laboratory costs of worthwhile research. Not least because the utilitarian view of science prevails in the public purse and there’s a strong bias away from primary research. If there isn’t a directly marketable product at the end of the process ( what was called near-market work when I was involved in European Community IT projects), forget it!

In medical research, there is arguably no more important issue than the increasing prevalence of obesity and its frequent consequence, diabetes. It isn’t just a lifestyle issue, though in some cases it can be. Prevention and control currently rest on expensive drug treatments or highly invasive surgical intervention. But the body may have its own mechanism built in, if we can figure out how to activate it.

This is where I run off the end of my understanding as a non-medic (albeit one who worked in pharmaceuticals for many years). We have two kinds of fat: white fat stores energy, but brown fat consumes it. If the brown fat mechanisms can be successfully activated, a new and effective treatment is on the cards. But this is primary research, not near-market work.

My son James Law, who is a senior Registrar in the Nottingham NHS and a member of staff at Nottingham University, working in the Queen’s Medical Centre, is undertaking research in this area. He needs your involvement through crowdfunding. Please visit the link to his own pages, and help if you can.

• Crowdfunding: not just for geeks. Help Free Ruggiero. ITasITis, 21 Nov 2014
• Ruggiero reviews: see Brighton Early Music on Facebook
• Click here to participate: Activating brown fat to improve diabetes and obesity, James Law & Michael Symonds, on

On news, social media and responsibility

The Guardian this morning is published under a new editor. Katharine Viner takes over from Alan Rusbridger, and she takes charge of an institution which is very different from the one Rusbridger inherited from Peter Preston in 1995.

Rusbridger yesterday published a farewell to his readers: now no longer just readers, but also both members and contributors to the conversations which The Guardian facilitates. In the internet age, some papers instituted paywalls: Rusbridger cites Murdoch’s Times, which claims around 280,000 daily readers. The Guardian took the opposite stance, opening up its content to an international readership. It is now the second most widely read online Enlish-language news “paper” worldwide: around seven million people read it online. For myself, I still subscribe to the paper edition: but the smartphone app has taken over from the website as my preferred means of access when, as recently, I am overseas. Even the BBC is not so accessible from abroad.

But the point of this post is to encourage you to read Rusbridger’s farewell in its entirety (and it’s quite long). It contains thoughtful, stimulating analysis of issues such as the place of the social web in interactive journalism – bringing forth a new role, combining journalism with the skill of forum moderation. There’s the continuing role of ethical reporting in holding people to account (including, as seen recently, its own industry peers). Illustrating the trend to online, there’s a comment that the new presses, bought when the paper changed format, were “likely to be the last we ever bought”.

He recalls The Guardian‘s first website, which “didn’t fall into the trap of simply replicating online what we did in print”; in my own career I led my company’s strategy towards the Internet and the emergent World-Wide Web, and I recognise these issues. In due course the paper has developed its interactive model, opening up for response and comment from its online readership as an important part of continuous publishing.

Wikileaks, the phone hacking scandals, Edward Snowden and more; recognition, through the Pulitzer Prize; and successes such as the curtailment of News Corporation’s monopolistic ambtions and, more recently, that the US “phone dragnet hat had secretly violated the privacy of millions of Americans every day since October 2001” has been shut down. Interesting sideline: the link to this in Rusbridger’s article is null, and I couldn’t find a recent news article but, in the interactive Comment is Free section, there’s a discussion from the American Civil Liberties Union dating from April 2014.

I’ve scratched the surface. For those of us looking at the ethics as well as the potential of information creation and sharing – and we are all publishers now – Rusbridger’s farewell should be required reading.

• ‘Farewell, readers’: Alan Rusbridger on leaving the Guardian after two decades at the helm, The Guardian, 29 May 2015
• Obama is cancelling the NSA dragnet. So why did all three branches sign off? Jameel Jaffer, American Civil Liberties Union, in Comment is Free, The Guardian, 25 March 2014
• other references in the articles

Crowdfunding: not just for geeks. Help Free Ruggiero

Just a short post. Teaching the Open University’s technology foundation course a couple of years ago introduced me to the idea of crowdfunding – I’m sure I’d have encountered it anyway, but seeing it as part of the wider picture of the social revolution added an extra dimension. Of course, crowdfunding isn’t entirely new; people have always subscribed readily to popular conventional share issues, not just in the privatisations of the last few decades but in the 19th century railway boom and earlier (look up the South Sea Bubble for one that historically went badly wrong). What’s different is that the reach is extended via the Web to people who might not otherwise think of being subscribers; and the range of rewards, while often creative and interesting, doesn’t extend to ongoing shareholder participation.

Shortly after learning about the idea, I joined one crowdfunding initiative as a result of which I now own a board game called Dreaming Spires which is about to have its official public launch. And now another, firmly in the realm of  the Arts.

We’re supporting members of the Brighton Early Music Festival (BREMF) which is a music festival with a difference. Not just early music concerts of a considerable excellence – and this year we were privileged to be part of two of them, built on choral and instrumental workshops we attended. But also projects which present the music in a new light, set in its historical context. This year, for example, we learned of the developments of “new” music as the style moved from Renaissance to early Baroque; feelings ran high, and “the old music” was held by some as a standard which the newer styles were pushing aside.

Next year’s BREMF will look at women composers, and the festival wants to stage what we’re calling Free Ruggiero (it has a long Italian name) which is the first complete opera known to have been composed by a woman: La Liberazione di Ruggiero dall’Isola d’Alcina written in 1625 by Francesca Caccini. If you apply for Arts Council funding you need to show you already have backing from other sources, and BREMF are raising this by crowdfunding through the Zequs platform.

Visit the Zequs page to find out more, if early music which challenged the norms and set ideas appeals to you. As I write, you only have nine days left to subscribe!

• Free Ruggiero on Zequs
• Brighton Early Music Festival (not just in the season)
• Dreaming Spires on Kickstarter

Dark Web: good, bad, or amoral?

Last night I watched BBC’s Horizon programme reviewing the history and impact of what’s become known as the Dark Web. Here seems to be the scenario.

In the beginning, was the Internet. In the early days of the Web I wrote a strategic report for my company which triggered the adoption of web technology and internet email. One of the things I pointed out was that, in the precursors such as newsgroups, no-one was anonymous. Traffic has identifiers or, at least, IP addresses attached to it. People know who you are, and your company’s reputation hinges on your behaviour online. As the Internet of Things expands, the amount of information about individuals that can be analysed out of internet traffic expands exponentially with it.

Governments, particularly the US, recognised the potential for compromising security and the response was TOR (The Onion Router network) which passed traffic through a number of nodes to disguise its origin. The project moved to Open Source and has become widely used in response to the growing levels of surveillance of internet traffic, revealed most notably of course by Edward Snowden. Wikileaks uses TOR to facilitate anonymous contributions: it wasn’t tracking which identified Snowden, or Manning. It has been used extensively in recent events in the Middle East.

So at this point, governments are trying to put the genie back in the bottle: they invented TOR, but they don’t like it being used to hide information from them. Moreover, it is being used for criminal transactions on a substantial scale: and at this point Bitcoin becomes part of the picture, because (unlike conventionally banked money) it too is not inherently traceable.

There’s no firm conclusion drawn in the programme, and surely that’s right. Technology of this kind isn’t inherently good or bad: it is, in the strict sense of the word, amoral. But the uses people make of it, as with almost any technology, are not amoral. And the programme raises strong issues about the balance of privacy and security, both in their widest senses. The sources used are strong and reputable: Oxford University’s Internet Institute; Julia Angwin, an established technology researcher and writer, key individuals in the development of these technologies, Julian Assange of WikiLeaks, and not least Tim Berners-Lee who admits to having been perhaps naive in his early assessment of these issues.

While it’s still on iPlayer, it’s worth a watch.

• Inside the Dark Web, BBC Horizon, 3 Sep 2014 (available on iPlayer in the UK until 15 Sep)
• Tor Project online, and Wikipedia article
• Oxford Internet Institute
• Julia Angwin

Twitter business information: railways lead the way

A little while ago I facilitated an event looking at social media in business. Part of the discussion, of course, focussed on in-enterprise social interactions: tools like Yammer, which sit within the enterprise and facilitate social interaction without risking compromise of business information.

But, inescapably, there was equal emphasis on the business use of external social media. Not just to put out messages on behalf of the enterprise: but to notice and respond to what the community is saying about you. As one delegate outlined: you can pick up on Twitter or Facebook a comment from a client who’s had a poor experience, and interact directly with them to explain. And quite often, they will then post a follow-up message offering appreciation along the lines of “now I understand”. What could be negative can be turned positive.

As a minor railway buff, I was interested also to hear the number of delegates referring to their commuting experience and the way that Twitter, particularly, has developed. First, of course, as an information tool for passengers: the twittosphere carries information about delays and problems, often much faster (and perhaps more reliably!) than official information arrives from the train operator. Particularly to passengers stuck somewhere after a points failure or, heaven forbid, a suicide. But the first development from that has been the way that train operating companies (TOCs) respond: keeping a feed going, and responding to tweets about problems. The best avoid anonymity: this morning’s first feed from First Capital Connect, for example, says “Morning folks, Jay, Tina and Greg here to take you through the morning. Hope you have a super day ^Jay“. There was strong favourable comment in the room about this. Another example of Euan Semple’s mantra: Organisations don’t tweet. People do.

Then Modern Railways magazine carried a couple of articles in successive months about Twitter data on the rail network.

In July, Roger Ford’s Informed Sources column covered a website which aggregates Twitter information for passengers. The site, from Delta Rail in Derby (which used to be British Rail’s research facility), produces something like a tag cloud through which you can see tweets about incidents on your commuter route. Because it’s commute oriented, the main page is an index by TOC not by location. Though it doesn’t seem to pick up tweets from the TOCs themselves.

You can also see the overall rating your TOC is currently getting, though since the tweets are mostly adverse (more people are likely to tweet for a problem than to praise) it’s not clear how this is achieved. It’s not the only such idea; the  Twitraffic app on my mobile aggregates information about road delays and incidents, which I contribute to when on the road and (of course) not driving.

There doesn’t seem to be an app for, which is a shame. The website is mobile friendly, with big blowsy panels and large text, but all you can get to by way of detail is the entire twitter feed for the TOC. It would be nice to be able to click through words in the tag cloud.

Back in the June issue, Informed Sources reported on another business-oriented development from Delta Rail. Sophisticated visualisation shows, for example, the level of Twitter activity compared to the norm; analyses positive versus negative messages (the example is to distinguish “Thankyou very much” from “Thanks a bunch!”); and, in real time, can show the build up of an incident from the volume of feeds relating to a particular location. This may well provide information to the operators faster than their own sources: after all, passengers are on the spot! Reviewing the data, both in real time and retrospectively, against other sources such as the National Passenger Survey can produce a wider overall picture than (say) the Survey on its own.

Nice to be able to highlight an IT success!

• Tweets put passengers ahead of the game, Roger Ford, Modern Railways, June 2014, p 36
• Social Media: more than just Tweets, Roger Ford, Modern Railways, May 2014, pp 36-37 (there are no online links to the articles themselves)
• Twitter: First Capital Connect (@FirstCC)
• Twitraffic online or as app
• Delta Rail “Innovative Software and Technology for the Transport Industry”